Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2015 season. Next up: The Minnesota Twins.
The Big Question: Are we there yet?
Minnesota collapsed in 2011 and hasn’t recovered yet, losing 99, 96, 96, and 92 games during the past four seasons. Among all MLB teams over that span only the Astros had fewer wins, 25 teams won at least 35 more games than the Twins, and their AL Central rival Tigers won 101 more games.
The lone benefit of all that losing is being able to stockpile prospects through the draft and trades, and the Twins have done that very well. Led by Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, their farm system is considered one of the 3-4 best in baseball and several of the highest-upside prospects are on the verge of the majors. Partly because of that and partly because fan morale and season ticket sales have plummeted the Twins spent the offseason trying to convince everyone that they’re ready to take a big step forward in 2015.
Terry Ryan, the Twins’ general manager for 17 total seasons in two stints, fired Ron Gardenhire after 13 seasons as manager, replacing him with Minnesota-born Hall of Famer Paul Molitor despite his complete lack of managing experience. They handed out the biggest free agent contract in team history in the form of a four-year, $54 million deal to Ervin Santana, losing a second-round draft pick in the process. And they brought back Torii Hunter for a reunion, spending $10 million on the 39-year-old former Twins star.
All spring Molitor, Ryan and the rest of the front office, and even Twins owner Jim Pohlad haven’t been shy about saying they think this is much improved team that has the potential to emerge as a playoff contender, but no one outside of Minnesota seems to agree. Nearly every national season preview, every statistical projection system, and every Las Vegas odds-maker pegs the Twins for last place and fewer than 75 wins, with several prominent sources predicting they’ll lose 90-plus games for a fifth year in a row.
For all the talk of the Twins’ great farm system the Opening Day roster looks likely to have just four players who’re 25 years old or younger: Designated hitter Kennys Vargas, shortstop Danny Santana, left fielder Oswaldo Arcia, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham. There were plenty of opportunities for the Twins to fill the roster with more youth and upside, but instead they frustratingly decided to give almost every roster spot that was up for competition to a mediocre veteran.
The starting rotation is made up of pitchers aged 33, 32, 29, 28, and 27. The bullpen is built around a 32-year-old closer (Glen Perkins, who’s very good) and his primary setup men are 33, 32, and 31. Santana, Arcia, and Vargas give the lineup some much-needed youth, but the other six regulars are 39, 32, 31, 29, 28, and 28. This is not a young team by any reasonable definition of the word and, based on both the numbers and the opinions of baseball experts, it’s also not a good team.
When the current rebuilding plan was put in motion in mid-2012 or so the idea was that the Twins would be competitive by now, but thanks to injuries several of the team’s best prospects had their promotion timetables pushed back and thanks to some questionable front office decision-making the roster that’s waiting for their delayed arrivals doesn’t look a whole lot better than what Twins fans have been watching (and increasingly not watching) for the past four years. So no, we’re not there yet. Keep driving.
What else is going on?
- Phil Hughes deserves recognition for his exceptional, historic 2014 season, especially since it came after his value bottomed out with the Yankees and he had to settle for a three-year, $24 million deal with the Twins last winter. Hughes logged 210 innings with a 3.52 ERA, racking up 186 strikeouts versus 16 walks for the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the history of baseball. Seriously. Minnesota was 20-12 when Hughes started and 50-80 with anyone else on the mound and this offseason the Twins tacked on another three seasons and $42 million to his deal.
- For a franchise starved for long-term shortstop help Danny Santana hitting .319 as a 23-year-old rookie was one of the few bright spots last season. However, his rookie success was built on an unsustainably great .405 batting average on balls in play and in the minors Santana had an OPS below .725 at Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A. He has plenty of raw talent and was pushed aggressively, so the mediocre minor-league numbers don’t mean he lacks upside, but there’s a very real chance Santana turns back into a pumpkin–or at least back into a solid but unspectacular player.
- Awful, strikeout-phobic pitching was the biggest reason for the Twins’ collapse, but the deterioration of a once-strong defense played an overlooked role as well. In particular the outfield defense has been a disaster in recent years. Arcia is a mistake-prone plodder in left field and Hunter, while once a great center fielder, is now a bad right fielder who ranked as one of the worst outfielders in baseball last year according to advanced defensive metrics. In other words, expect to continue seeing Twins pitchers give up lots of extra-base hits into the gaps as people wonder why the run prevention hasn’t improved as much as hoped.
- Twins fans seem destined for another long year at Target Field, but here’s the silver lining: By midseason it’s possible that as many as a half-dozen of the team’s top 10 prospects could be in Minnesota, including Buxton in center field, Sano joining Arcia and Vargas in the middle of the lineup, Alex Meyer, Jose Berrios, and Trevor May in the rotation, and Nick Burdi hitting triple-digits out of the bullpen. There’s a lot of losing to sit through and a lot of veteran mediocrity to clear off the roster before then, but there’s also light at the end of the tunnel.
Prediction: Last place, but fewer than 90 losses for the first time since 2010 and some actual excitement in the second half.